After weeks of avoiding the press while enjoying a post-term vacation, Barack Obama stepped back in the political spotlight.
The former president spoke with young leaders at the University of Chicago in a conversation about civic engagement on Monday, the same day that Fox Business reported that Obama will receive $400,000 for a speech he plans to deliver at a healthcare conference organized by the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald in September.
The fee is equal to the salary Obama received as president and twice what former President Bill Clinton has received for speeches, according to the New York Times. Hillary Clinton's fees have varied, but the former first lady and presidential candidate received as much as $325,000 for a single appearance in 2015, the Washington Post reports. Former President George W. Bush is reportedly paid $100,000 to $175,000 for his speaking engagements.
The news of Obama's fee has drawn criticism for liberals and conservatives, and critics have pointed out how often the former president criticized big banks and the growing wealth inequality. "I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American," Obama said in a speech in December 2013.
The Washington Post's Aaron Blake published a story outlining "4 reasons Obama’s $400,000 Wall Street speech is a bad idea." And Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote, "Obama’s $400,000 Wall Street speaking fee will undermine everything he believes in. To fight the rising tide of populism, mainstream leaders need to raise their ethical game."
The backlash drew the spotlight away from Obama's Monday remarks, his first public speech post-presidency. During the speech the former president focused on both his time as a community organizer in Chicago as well as his optimism for the future of American democracy.
“We have some of the lowest voting rates of any democracy and low participation rates than translate into a further gap between who's governing us and what we believe,” Obama said.
“The only folks who are going to be able to solve that problem are going to be young people, the next generation. And I have been encouraged everywhere I go in the United States, but also everywhere around the world to see how sharp and astute and tolerant and thoughtful and entrepreneurial our young people are.”
He also shared that breaking down the barriers that inhibit young people from getting involved is one of his goals for life out of the Oval Office.
“The question then becomes what are the ways in which we can create pathways for them to take leadership, for them to get involved? Are there ways in which we can knockdown some of the barriers that are discouraging young people about a life of service?” Obama asked.
“And if there are, I want to work with them to knock down those barriers, and to get this next generation and to accelerate their move towards leadership. Because if that happens, I think we're going to be just fine. And I end up being incredibly optimistic.”
The appearance marks a turning point in Obama's post-presidency routine, and an indication that the former president is ready to return to public life after weeks of vacationing, first in the US Virgin Islands with billionaire Richard Branson and then in French Polynesia with the likes of Oprah, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, and his wife.
Before the president departed for his month-long South Pacific sojourn, former Attorney General Eric Holder told Politico he'd been talking to the former president about getting involved with the new National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which aims to help the Democratic Party win back state legislative seats beginning with next year's elections. Obama asked Holder to chair the committee last year, and last month he said the former president "will be a more visible part of the effort."
"It's coming. He's coming," Holder said. "And he's ready to roll."
But that wasn't the only big Obama-related announcement around that time. On February 28, Penguin Random House announced that it had secured a record-setting $65 million deal with former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama for their upcoming books. The publisher also announced it would donate one million books to charitable organizations in the Obama family's name, and the Obamas plan to donate a portion of their earnings from book sales to charity.